Tu Xuong Street in District 3 is a narrow strip often used during rush hour to avoid the clogged junctions of Saigon's over-motorbiked streets. The fourth installment of 'Sticking pins in Saigon' finds us in among big houses, office space, the odd cafe, four or five street vendors and a scattering of basic restaurants. I skip the three, ever present, Com binh dan restaurants and pop inside what looks like the classiest lunch spot of the lot, Quan An Thien An, at 6A Tu Xuong. Thien An is a half-covered, open air joint. The al fresco section has a retractable blue canopy. The kitchen area is hidden behind a flimsy partition and lines the entire length of one side of the restaurant. Plastic chairs, rickety fans, pot plants and naff paintings add bags more boom to the aesthetic bomb, but bad looks don't always mean shoddy nosh. Not in Vietnam.
There's an extensive, budget friendly English/Vietnamese menu with shrimp, crab, eel, frog, beef, squid and fish dishes. There are four house specialties; Chim se se nuong moi (Special plain grilled sparrows), Chao luon dua xanh (Eel green bean porridge), Chao ca rau dang (Fish porridge with rau dang) and Oc len xao dua (Braised "Len Len" snails with coconut milk). I have no idea what a "Len Len" snail is, but I do like my snails and so this is the dish I plump for. A bell rings and the food appears from a small serving hatch. No less than six pairs of eyes bear down on me wondering whether the clueless white guy knows what to do next. He doesn't.
I try, but without the usual 'snail-picking device' I'm floundering. One of my watchers takes pity and shows me the way. It turns out the trick is to suck both ends. The pointed tip of each snail is already broken off for you. You suck this end first to dislodge the snail. Follow this up with a hard suck on the wide end and the small rubbery gem should pop straight into your mouth. Simple. Well, not quite. It's messy, it's noisy and it's embarrassing to fluff your lines in front of an audience. However, it's worth the labour intensive scoff-out because this is an excellent snail dish. The sweetened coconut milk is mixed with lemon grass, chopped Rau ram (a spicy Vietnamese mint-like herb) and a little chili. I'm a big snail fan, but let's face it - snails are bland. Fortunately, the sweet, hot coconut sauce at Thien An gives the grunt these snazzy mollusc wannabes need. It's a fabulous find and I'll definitely be back for more. 30,000VD or just under $2.